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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State prepares to open camp with depth, high energy

Keith Harrington is part of a deep Washington State group of running backs. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Washington State’s football players will put on their helmets and hit the practice field on Saturday, marking the beginning of the 2016 season. And so much more goes into it than that.

For the Cougars, who begin their season as they always do under head coach Mike Leach, at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston, the actual mechanics of holding their first practice pale when compared to the logistics. Players must be signed into dorms at nearby Lewis-Clark State College, meals must be figured out, equipment transported.

Leach has so much to think about before he gets to what he calls the best group of running backs he’s had, or a receiver, Gabe Marks, whom he said “literally might be the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached.”

“What you’re trying to do is make moving parts run together perfectly without any friction at all,” Leach said. “There’s always going to be a hitch, and you’re never going to plan perfectly, but you try. And I’ll be honest with you, some of that overplanning can be a waste of time. Because in the end, you want to have the best framework and stuff that you can, but there’s a whole bunch of coaches – us included, hopefully to a lesser degree than the others – wringing their hands and pulling their hair out trying to be perfect.”

The Cougars enter camp with understandably high expectations following last year’s nine-win season. The importance of these initial practices shouldn’t need to be impressed upon a team that lost its season opener to FCS Portland State last season.

WSU has depth like its never had under Leach, particularly on offense. One of the four running backs might have to switch positions just to get on the playing field.

“We don’t have enough reps for four running backs,” Leach said, hinting that a move to receiver might be likely for the odd man out. (Keith Harrington came to WSU as a wide receiver and Jamal Morrow is the most productive pass-catcher out of the backfield the Cougs have had.)

Because Leach’s precamp teleconference was his first major press availability since the Sun Bowl, he also addressed a laundry list of sundry items. Quarterback Peyton Bender, who transferred, might return to the team, but Leach didn’t sound as if he thinks that’s likely. But Leach has confidence in redshirt freshman Tyler Hilinksi, whom he says has the best feet of all the WSU passers.

He’s confident in the new starters on the offensive line – left tackle Andre Dillard and left guard Cody O’Connell – and acknowledged that building depth behind the starting linebackers will be a priority during camp.

Marks, his roommate Parker Henry and sophomore cornerback Darrien Molton are the three “very elite” hard workers on the team, although Morrow’s infectious enthusiasm has led to more energetic offseason workouts than Leach has seen.

It’s that energy – more than a returning starting quarterback, a deep stable of running backs and a toothsome defense – that has Leach excited for the upcoming season.

“The biggest thing is overall excitement for the season,” Leach said. “With that, you generate motivation to improve and the focus is specifically to do that and off it goes. I think we’ll start camp on a very high note. I think that we will continue to improve from there.”